How Juilliard Violin Teacher Dorothy DeLay Turns Pupils into Performers

Violin teacher Dorothy DeLay has been extraordinarily successful in turning gifted young students into promising performers.

From the May/June 1995 Issue of Strings | By Edith Eisler

“This room is where I spend most of my life,” says Dorothy DeLay, one of the most respected and esteemed violin teachers in the United States, who recently became the first teacher to be honored with the National Medal of the Arts. She opens the door of one of the built-in floor-to-ceiling closets in her spacious studio at the Juilliard School of Music, revealing a stack of plates, a refrigerator, and a microwave oven (the latter a gift from her children). The insides of the closet doors are covered with photographs of past and present students. An entire wall of windows makes the studio bright and air; at one end is a grand piano, at the other a large desk cluttered with papers, writing materials, a telephone, boxes of Kleenex, herbal tea, and a teapot and warming pad. The biggest surprise is the assortment of shapes and sizes of the stuffed animals that occupy the sofas and armchairs. Clearly, this room is meant to make a variety of people feel at home.

When I arrived, I found her talking with two students: a boy who was making an appointment for another lesson, and a girl who had dropped in to tell DeLay she had just won a contest and was invited to come back later to give her teacher a fuller report. The scene gave the impression of caring, concern, and mutual affection—a sense that time can be bent to serve human needs. Indeed, both current and former students speak glowingly of DeLay’s generosity in making herself available whenever they need counsel and advice, and of her warmth, understanding, and enduring interest in their professional and personal lives.

DeLay numbers among her pupils many, if not most, of the younger generation of violinist now before the public. She has been extraordinarily successful in turning gifted young students into promising performers; in fact, she accepts only those who are headed for a concert career and advanced enough to be studying the standard concertos. The best talents flock to her from all over the world, not only for her reputation as a pedagogue, but also for her ability to launch careers through a network of contacts—vital for anyone trying to break into the highly competitive concert world, where securing a manager, a publicity agent, and a recording contract are basic necessities, nearly impossible to obtain without inside influence.

She understands very clearly that a performer who wants to be successful must conform to the cultural demands of the time, and she gives her students not only the best violinistic tools, but a pragmatic, audience-oriented attitude. “It’s very important for young people to learn to consider whom they are playing for—the community, the audience—and the purpose of the concert,” she says. “They must understand that they are part of a society which accepts certain styles, and they must know what these styles are and how they are formed.” This has been true of all performers in every society, leading to inevitable conflicts between the demands of individual self-expression and cultural compliance. But it seems to me that our presents society is singularly inimical to traditional artistic values: relentlessly competitive, obsessed with speed, volume, machines, and material success, it ostensibly encourages individualism and prizes conformity over originality. I am particularly aware of this having grown up and acquired my musical ideals in Europe before and during the Second World War in a radically different world, where music was a very important part of people’s everyday lives and making music at home was a popular pastime. How can teachers prepare today’s aspiring young performers for the realities of the concert stage? I could not have asked for a better, more generous guide than Dorothy DeLay in my quest to gain an inside look at the current pedagogical approach to philosophy.

It’s very important for young people to learn to consider whom they are playing for—the audience.

She describes herself as not having been a good student. “In the days when I was studying—long ago!—it was not considered proper to ask questions of one’s teachers, because it meant that you were questioning their authority. So my teachers often said things to me that I had absolutely no way of understanding; all I knew was that they didn’t like something I’d done and wanted me to change it, but I didn’t’ know what it was or what to do about it. So I’d try at random and of course it didn’t work. I’d leave the lesson thinking I was very studio and untalented and would never amount to anything. There was just no communication between us.” She resolved not to become that kind of teacher, and now her students say that one of the most valuable things she gives them is the confidence to feel good about themselves.

Because there is a limit to the number of students she can accept, there are certain qualities she looks for, apart from superior talent. “I think they are the same qualities you look for in conversation with a person: intelligence, humor, emotional reaction to the music,” she explains. “The students must also have developed a certain amount of technique.”

On most traditional pedagogical issues, DeLay is not dogmatic, though she has definite opinions—which often lie in the middle ground. Take, for example, the age-old controversy between teachers who advocate “teaching by demonstration,” as violinist David Oistrakh put it, and those who claim this leads to too much imitation. “It’s a question of the value of copying,” DeLay says. “We all take in the sounds of the various violinist we hear; they become part of our memories which we draw on when we begin to play. I think the danger lies in having only one source of memory. If the student listens to his teacher constantly without doing much other listening, he will be highly influenced and won’t have a broad enough background.” Regarding the teaching systems that rely on imitation to the point of drilling, especially for young children, she says, “I think children sound drilled when their playing is only partly developed—when their rhythm and dynamics, for example, need more shaping.” When it comes to listening to recordings of what they are studying, DeLay says its usefulness depends on the student. “If he has an independent mind and strong confidence in his own judgment, listening to other performances is all right.” How do students develop confidence in their own judgment? “If it is respected by the people they spend time with,” she responds.


I ask how students form their own judgements in the first place, and DeLay smiles. “Ah, you’re asking a very difficult question. I try to encourage it here. I have classes where the students play for each other, and after each performance, I ask all the listeners how they would develop the piece further after getting it to that stage. I do this even with the very young ones. The other day there were four nine- and ten-year-olds who just came in this year, playing concertos by Mozart, Paganini, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky; they played so well, I could hardly believe what I was hearing. So, to see what sort of judgment they’d make, I asked them, ‘What is the difference between the kind of music Mozart and Tchaikovsky wrote?’ One of them said, ‘Mozart is smoother, Tchaikovsky is more . . .’ she waved her arms around. And another one said, ‘The third movement of the Sibelius is like the army!’”

This brought up the subject of children beginning to play and perform earlier and earlier. In our cultural milieu, the craving for sensation expresses itself in the concert world with a demand for younger and younger performers. Hence the recent resurgence of prodigies, a good many of whom have emerged from DeLay’s studio. Children who started on the violin at three or four, sometimes taught by parents who had themselves been DeLay students, come to her a few years later playing the big blockbuster concertos. “The amazing thing about these children,” she says, “is that they learn so quickly and easily that it doesn’t take them as long to be able to play those pieces as it would a teenage. I would say they practice two or three hours a day at first, and as they get older, it increases to four or five.” That sounds like a lot of practicing for a small child, but she says, “They seem to like it; certainly they have a great time here. It depends entirely on whether or not [practicing] becomes a comfortable part of their lives. I think there should be no difference between the way parents handle their children’s practicing and their homework.”

She gives her students a schedule of how to divide their practice time, based on five house a day. The first hour is spend on basic technique: for the left hand, raising and dropping fingers for clean articulation; shifting and working to gauge distances accurately on the fingerboard; and vibrato. For bowing, smooth bow changes; varieties of bow pressure and speed; purity and variety of tone; tone production; and various styles of bowing, firm and bounced. For all these exercises, the students use scales or etudes. The second hour is spend on scales and difficult passages from the literature being studied; the rest of the time on the literature itself: first in detailed technique work, segment by segment, then on playing through a piece several times, just as in a performance.

We all take in the sounds of the various violinist we hear; they become part of our memories which we draw on when we begin to play. I think the danger lies in having only one source of memory.

The age at which a child should start performing depends on the child, DeLay says. “I think it can be very good for some to start as early as ten or 12, because they learn so much from it, and if the experience is a happy one, they’ll go right on being very pleased to do it. Also, it depends on the child’s background. In European and Asian cultures, there is less emphasis on children’s socialization than here. And there is usually a parent at home giving full attention to the child. This has been my experience with many of my Asian students.

“But the real question is, what do these young players do for an audience? I think they do something very special: they remind us that our hope for the human race lies in our gifted children.”

One of the secrets of child performers is their blissful unawareness that anything might go wrong. When they wake up to that possibility, fear becomes involved, DeLay explains. “And basically it’s the fear of not being loved: ‘If I make a mistake, all those people out there will laugh at me!’ They have to start realizing that the audience didn’t come to look for mistakes, but to enjoy the music. It’s not like playing for your mother or your teacher.”

I ask her if there is also a sense of responsibility to the music, the fear of not doing justice to it. “I think you’re never satisfied with a performance,” she answers, “but what’s important is to know what’s adequate for the situation. If you are playing for some kindergarten children, it doesn’t matter if you make a few mistakes. You have to understand clearly what your purpose is in playing for a particular group of people.” Does one then always play only for the audience, never for one’s own satisfaction or self-expression? “I think one has to satisfy one’s own standards as far as possible, but it seems to me we can only continue to learn because our imagination will always be ahead of our achievement. We can say, ‘This concert was better than the last and maybe the next one will be still better.’”


Children’s fingers can be trained to play difficult music long before they are mature enough to understand it, but I wonder how their heads and hearts catch up with them later. “Children have tremendously strong emotions, and some of them are amazingly expressive,” DeLay says. “In fact, their feelings are perhaps more accessible to them than they are to an adult. But of course there is a period, in their middle of late teens, when the audience stops thinking of them as phenomena and starts expecting them to play like artists.”

The preoccupation with audience demands and reactions runs like leitmotif through the conversation. My own preoccupation propels me in the opposite direction: how can the teacher make students aware of their own feelings, help them find their own responses to the music, and encourage them to grow emotionally, especially children whose technique has developed far beyond their inner maturity? In other words, how can the teacher help them to become artists? She answers, “I ask all kinds of questions. For example: ‘Imagine somebody has given you this music as background for a television show; what kind of story would you write?’ One student said of the beginning of the Sibelius Concerto, ‘This is cold, like the North Sea. I’m on a fishing boat.’ Then, on the big upward run: ‘Now I pull out the fish!’ They are very creative, these children.”

But as they grow up, I argue, they must realize that these pictures have nothing to do with the essence of music. How can the teacher guide them to the inner experience of its emotional content? DeLay reflects for a moment. “How shall I explain it? The main thing is that the audience should receive something from the performer, so I think it’s very important for children to make the transition from playing music to be enjoyed with their family to giving it to an audience as a gift.” I still question what performers have to give until they have learned to let the music speak first to themselves and then, through them, the listener. But perhaps it is impossible to reconcile a completely outward-oriented approach to music—and perhaps this explains why so many of today’s young players sound, to me, almost interchangeably alike.

DeLay agrees that performers, especially young ones, will often play music that is beyond them and indeed give concerts before they are ready to appear in public. “Often the teacher has no control,” she says. “All I can do is give advice. Young people tend to be eager and hopeful; they want to try many things—concerts, competitions . . . When they come and ask if they should go ahead, it’s a good idea to say, ‘Well, that might be an interesting experience.’ If you tell a student, ‘I don’t think you should do that, I’d be famous now.’” She says she does not like competitions because, in this country, they do nothing to help careers and because there can be only one winner, at the expense of many losers who are often devastated. “Besides, I’m not sure that the approved musical opinion—that is, the jury’s opinion—is always the best; its’s so subjective,” she says. Nevertheless, she often accepts invitations to adjudicate contests.

When I ask where all the talented, aspiring young performers who are being turned out in such numbers by the conservatories are going to find an audience, a living, and a life, she says cheerfully, “OK, I have half an answer, and increasingly I’m telling this to my students. I think our young people must learn not to say, ‘Unless I can play with the New York Philharmonic, I won’t be happy.’ They have to be willing to do many things; they must be missionaries who go out into a community and help the people there develop their love of music.” She relates two success stories: one of a student of hers who went to the Midwest as concertmaster of an orchestra, became first violinist in a string quartet, and profession at the university, developed a class of students, and organized a graduate string quartet; the other pianist in Tennessee who built up a major concert career in her area ‘because she understood the function of music in the community.’ She was friendly to her audiences, asked them what they wanted to hear, helped them organize their own musical events. At the same time, she looked after her husband and several children, as well as a large class of students. That’s what you have to do, go out like a pioneer, because it’s part of a performer’s responsibility to take care of communities that are not musically sophisticated. You have to be willing to play for absolutely anybody. If all a player wants is a big career, he’ll probably give up sooner or later.”


I wonder whether the idea of a “big career” originates more with the parents than with the children. “I think that’s true,” DeLay responds, “but I also think there comes a point in everybody’s life when they look at what they’re doing and begin to wonder if that’s really what they want. With some if comes as early as high school, with others not until their late 20s.” She pauses and goes on, “There’s also something else. As we grow up and become teenagers, we begin to feel that soon we’ll be independent, on our won. At that point in our development, it seems to me that the most important thing is to understand that it’s out feelings that make us individuals. We say, ‘My feelings about this are my life, they are me,’ and we become desperate to protect those feelings. To be told not to feel the way we do, or not to follow our feelings in deciding something so important as what to do with our lives, is devastating at that age. I think we have to gather faith and trust in our own emotional reactions.”

Like most successful people, DeLay has her share of detractors; indeed, controversy swirls around every aspect of her activities. She is faulted for attracting, and accepting, so many students that she has to delegate their regular lessons to several assistant and hear them herself only occasionally, but she is neither the first nor the only one to do this. Many great teachers whose fame brought them more students than they could accommodate have done the same. “I am very proud of the people I work with,” she says. “They are my own students; I’ve known them for decades, and they are absolutely dedicated teachers. When I send students to one of my associates, I make sure I know what they are going to be told. We ask the students to keep notebooks and we write instructions on the music, and all this goes back and forth between us. I also have graduate students who supervise practice and conduct scale classes. I’m trying to develop young teachers here at Juilliard; some of them have a real gift for it.”

Sharing students with assistants is natural for DeLay, as she herself worked as assistant to Ivan Galamian, one of the most famous and successful teachers of his own day. Her termination of that relationship a number of years later to branch out on her own has provided the rumor mills with inexhaustible grist for speculation. Her own comment on the matter is, “I was very fortunate; I had studied with him for a short time, but he was the first teacher I could really talk to and I learned a lot. Then, when I was his assistant, we would take the list of the students we both worked with and discuss them every week. I think everyone has to learn to teach.”

Apart from working with her assistants, how often do her students actually get to play for her? That depends on the situation, DeLay answers. “If people are coming to New York for a limited period from performing elsewhere, or are preparing for concerts and have an important one coming up, I try to hear them as frequently and give them as many hours as I can.” Obviously, such flexibility makes it almost impossible to adhere to the sort of regular lesson schedule customary in most music schools, and stories abound of students being kept waiting for hours after their appointed time.

DeLay has also been accused of expending more time and energy fostering her students’ careers than teaching them—abrogating her responsibility as a teacher,” as one colleague put it. But for this, too, there are fairly recent precedents: piano students went to Olga Samaroff and Isabella Vengerova, famous teachers both, as much for their promotional as for their pedagogical skills. Yet they could not have turned out so many successful performers if they had not also taught them a lot about playing their instrument. DeLay’s students are not only living proof that the same is true of her, but they miss no opportunity to say so, crediting her with giving them both a rock-solid foundation and a critical, disciplined approach that enables them to build on it intelligently. Peter Oundjian, first violinist of the Tokyo Quartet and former student, describes her as having “the most penetrating analytical mind and a matchless ability to diagnose and solve any technical problem.”